Sweat poured down his face. That’s what you do in this country you sweat. Unless you live in the mountains, but the majority of the country sweats. He made it in time. It was the last bus to the south and he had to get out of the capital before tomorrow. A general strike had been organized. The cost of living had gotten too high and the people weren’t going to take it. The entire country was about to blow up. There was no doubt the capital would be out of control. Huelgas are strikes, but in this country huelgas are riots. Rocks, glass bottles, anything that can be picked up and thrown will be thrown. Tires will be lit on fire. Authority will take a backseat to the tireless mobs. And for twenty-four hours anarchy will rule the Dominican Republic.
It won’t change any prices. Life will be a little worse. Everyone that needs that daily income – from pushing a cart through the streets selling coconut water, to driving a carro route back and forth – will be set back a day’s pay and the cost of living will be that much harder to catch up to. But that’s not on his mind right now. Now he just wants to get the fuck out of dodge before the explosion of riled Dominicans swarm the streets of the capital. A gringo hanging around with some pissed nationals doesn’t seem smart. He’s seen the strikes before. Transportation strikes happen all over the country. Drivers from one route take the passengers of another route and hostility breaks out. You can see the evidence in the cracked windshields and dented sides of the guaguas. Towns strike over loss of electricity, which he never understood. No one pays for their electricity, how can a people strike over the loss of a service that they don’t pay for to begin with? But they do. He’s driven through one of those. There was only one road that went through the town and the people blocked it with rock piles and burning tires. Ten men with stones the size of their fists in each hand stood in the middle and to the side, aiming at any car that pushed the accelerator and made a run for it. The chofer that trip was a friendly of the town. After a brief conversation with one of them he was waved through. Frustrated faces gave solemn nods to answer the driver’s horn and lowered their rocks as the guagua weaved around the flames and the rocks and onward.
That was a small coastal town blocking one road. Tomorrow there was a huelga planned to envelope the entire country. He just wanted to get out, back to his rural coastal town where everything would be quiet. He hopped the last guagua to Pedernales at 3 pm. It was full, he thought. He took a seat against the window in the back. Inside was hotter than out and he sweat, but that’s what you do in this country. All the seats were taken when they left. Four grown men including him took up the backseat. In front of them there were seven rows of two seats—aisle—one seat. There were chairs connected to the two seats that folded up like an armrest, and could fold down over the aisle to fit one more. Only one of those was folded down. A heavy fellow with a shirt two sizes small sat there, sweat pouring down his face, but well that’s what you do in this country. He leaned forward and his shirt came halfway up his back revealing a pistol tucked between his jeans and hip. The gringo’s seen it before. Once in El Seibo he was waiting for his chimi when something fell down the pant leg of the man standing next to him and landed with a metallic thud. He looked down to discover a gun with a worn wooden handle lying on the ground. “Ay!” said the man, and without a thought bent over to pick it up. It was the Wild West. If they wanted a gun, they were going to have a gun, and if they wanted to strike, well, they were going to strike, because that’s what you do in this country…you do what you want, and you sweat.
They began to roll out of Santo Domingo, down 27 de Febrero. This isn’t going to be such a bad ride. The air has already dried the sweat on the passengers’ faces and actually feels cool. Then around Plaza de la Bandera and they stop. The air stops. A dead heat fills the cabin again and sweat automatically charges out of pores like ole’ faithful. Everyone’s drenched in seconds, and Look! There are more people dying to jump the last bus south. Everyone is trying to escape the forecasted fog of teargas and burning-rubber-smoke. There are four people in la cocina? “Pero que pasa hombre? Ponte atrás.” There still is room, there’s supposed to be five in the back.
The guy that just got on doesn’t look promising. He squeezes through the aisle, and damn, this man just isn’t going to fit. His ass is about two feet wide and even with the American pushed up against the wall there’s only a foot of space in the cocina. The four of them make minor adjustments and of course they make it work. Somehow it always works. With him in, the rest scramble on and all of the aisle seats are folded down. Bueno, ahora esta llena la guagua. Now the gringo is one of five with seven rows of four in front. The window he’s pushed up against doesn’t open. God, seven rows of four large Dominicans now block the exit. Deep breaths rubio don’t panic. The air is a little thicker, harder to suck the oxygen out of. Deep breaths and they’re moving again. The air comes back and they’re barreling west on autopista 6 de noviembre. The buses suspension doesn’t hold well, and they bounce along the paved highway like they’re riding a campo dirt road, but they’re making time and cruising.
The bus isn’t much to look at. It looks broke down. Dents and scratches decorate the outside, evidence of long hauls made and accidents had. Black stickers put up to shade the sun are pealing off like paint chips. It could be one of those transports that take commuters just out of the city and ya. It would barely be able to handle that task let alone the seven-hour trip it has in front of it, west through Bani and Azua, before taking a left to travel south through Barahona and finally west again on to Pedernales. There’s no chance. Those tires are as toothless as the campesinos riding them, bald as hell. No chance they’ll stick to the winding 44 along the coast and through the desert. It’s carrying too much weight to be making those turns at those speeds. But they’ll make it, they always do.
There’s no horn, or at least it’s not working at the moment. The driver passes the duty on to his assistant, the man collecting fare. He pays attention to the road in front and whenever the bus gets in the passing lane the cobrador leans out the door and blows a warning through a long white PBC pipe, ERRRRRRRRR! He’s cut holes in it too and turned it into an instrument. He’s memorized a few Bachata choruses and blows the tunes out to the traffic. He’s just showing off now. The bus isn’t even passing—not a vehicle for kilometers, but he blows out a chorus to the open road—dadadadadada da daaa.
he bus slows down and comes to a stop under a bridge. ERRR ERRR dadadadadada da daaa. A group of Dominicans waits with their bags. No, Rubio is in the back shaking his head, there’s no way, but ten more shuffle in. Minor adjustments are made and now seven rows of five are in front of him. It’s escape from El Capital. No one want’s to stick around to see what happens, and everyone waited to the last minute to figure it out. “Pero mira el blanco!” He looks uncomfortable. Don’t worry chico, we can fit more! People are already stacked on top of each other; doubled over, bent, and folded to size so they can fit in their square foot of paid space. Arms over backs over arms over legs over feet, over bags…Deep breaths gringo, the air is even thicker and there hasn’t been a breeze since they stopped. The sweat has already started dripping down his nose again but hell, that’s what you do in this country.
The bus moves on and starts through the western country. Passengers seek out a comfortable position for a little sleep, anything to make this ride quicker. Arms are folded and slumped over the headrest in front. Heads are down in the crooks of elbows, or against the Plexiglas windows. The suspension has been suffering. Every turn and bump in the road bangs heads against some nearby object. The Merengue is blasting out of the stereo and…dadadadadada da daaa… that fucking horn. The Dominicans have found the groove of the bus and go along with it in their sleep. Everyone has become part of the guagua. They sway around the curves and bounce up and down with it. Not blanco in the back. He’s not getting any shuteye on this trip. He’s pushed up against the window but he doesn’t have enough room to make a comfortable angle against the glass. He’s got a headrest in front of him but each bounce slides his sweaty arms off of the seat and his head bangs into the chair in front of him. No sleep so he just stares out the window that won’t open.
Once out of the city and passed Bani the country starts to grow. At first the plantain fields stretch out for miles but then, further west, mountains explode out of the ground in the distance. The landscape is still lush on the way to Azua. Platano, guineo, caña, everything is growing green and tall. Huge patches of land are packed with agriculture to the mountain walls. Campesinos with machetes and mules packed high with produce walk through the fields…and then Azua. It ends without warning. As if clouds with full bladders looked over at their choice of space to relieve themselves, saw Azua and said “Hell, I’m not pissing over there.” Dry. The country begins to roll with dusty hills, boney hills with sparse skinny trees and cacti.
The road starts to wind and the bus cruises on, passengers swaying right as the bus veers left and left and as it curves to the right. Everyone is in synch, the road the bus, the people…the gringo? No his ass is killing him. He’s been putting all his weight on one cheek for the past two and a half hours and now his entire left leg is numb. The toes stopped tingling back outside of Bani. He needs to switch but the other one is hanging off the seat, pinched between the edge of the bench and the wall of the bus. He tries to get a little of the right cheek on the chair but there is no space. There’s no chance. The man next to him has about four bags on his lap and he’s right up against the rubio. He goes to adjust his arm so he can push himself up. There is no room for it. The elbow of the man to his right has found its place and it won’t give. The man is asleep, synched in.
He finds it. He gets one hand up on the headrest of the chair in front, and one on the thin ledge of the window. He pushes himself up for a second and turns his body ever so slightly towards the window and gently lowers that right ass cheek onto the seat. Success!! The reward is instant, blood flow to the left leg and feeling in the toes! It’s only a few inches adjustment, but it gives the gringo confidence, maybe he will make it.
They roll up and down and around the bony hills and pass through various desert towns, pueblos del Sur. Towns engulfed in dust, where Dominicans protect themselves in wood houses covered by zinc roofs, wood houses with holes and spaces between planks. Homes impossible to keep clean as sand continuously flows in with the wind. There is no agriculture in this town. There is no river. There is no ocean nearby. Who knows how it began. A frontier town that people couldn’t leave. It has its value somewhere, under all that dust, behind the hills. They roll passed these towns without a second glance, but the children of the pueblo look after the bus as it rolls out of sight behind another boney hill.
They continue on, deeper into the southern desert to the lost city of Barahona filled with lost boys, vagos, and locos. It’s a Wild West town in this Wild West country. The gringo has seen the lawlessness. He was witness to the beating of a woman in the central park, open abuse of youth working in the street, and bums throwing glass beer bottles from across the malecon. One of which sailed right over a POLITUR pick-up truck before crashing on the sidewalk. The tourism police took a quick glance out their window before moving on.
The only policing force is the G-2, a group set out to monitor Haitian immigration. They have checkpoints set up around the city, and they’ll let you in, but won’t let you out. You can pass on if the direction is west. The further west the bus goes the quicker it’s ushered through. This bus is destined for Pedernales. “Vete, lleva los Haitianos pa’lla!” The Further away from the capital the better and this bus is on a straight shot to the border.
Getting out of Barahona without papers doesn’t happen. That paper can have your name on it, a few valid numbers, and your photo, but your guaranteed less hassle if that paper has the name of a dead revolutionary, a high number, and a photo of some building on the back. It’s a Wild West town in a Wild West country, and money is your key. But this bus is going west and getting in isn’t the problem. The bus moves on over the speed bump and passed the waving official and his entourage of over dressed, over armed militants, the ejército.
The guagua shoots through Barahona. It’s late afternoon on Sunday, and the streets are empty save for the few colmados, liquor stores, billiard halls, and bars where the Dominicans are dancing merengue and bachata, slapping dominoes, shooting pool, and enjoying the last day of the weekend with Brugal and cerveza. The bus moves on. Passengers look out longingly. They’re thinking of catching their colmados before they close but they know they won’t get home until ten tonight. They’re only in Barahona there’s another three hours left before this piece of junk arrives at its destination.
Not the gringo, he sees the home stretch laid out in front of him. The coastal 44 is all that sits between our rubio and salvation. The other leg is going numb, but he doesn’t let it bother him. In forty-five minutes he’ll be out. He looks out the window.
South of Barahona the land bursts out of the ocean. To the east the sea reaches out to the horizon and to the west, mountains carpeted in a dense jungle jut out of the water and sail up towards the sky. The road twists in and out of these peaks, and the guagua hugs the faulty guard-rails that were built too far back to remember to keep 16-wheelers from tumbling down cliffs that drop inches away from the road. Pero este chofer sabe! He knows the road. He drives back and forth, ida y vuelta, three times a day between Pedernales y el Capital. He’s in synch with the highway. He know’s every turn, every pothole, every narrow stretch of the 44 and with fifty-some-odd people synched in and swaying with every touch of the wheel he can make this heap of metal hurtle around turns with a heavy foot pushing that pedal to the rusted floor, and he has, and he will for the entirety of this seven hour journey to the Western Frontier.
Los Patos is in the headlights, the end, the destination for el gringo. He’s in the back corner. There are forty-nine-some-odd people crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, and hip-to-hip in front of him. The aisle seats are down and two asses are in each one. Everyone is on the bus for the long-haul, Pedernales. Rubio should have grabbed a seat up front, but now he’s yelling at the cobrador to stop the bus and let him off. “Dejame!” he screams and the entire bus turns around to see a white face pushed up against a window that doesn’t open. The entire bus is going to have to file off, and then back on again. Jealous looks, and looks of anger shoot to that back corner. But wait the window in front. “El es flaco!” He’ll fit! Just a few people move, stand up, lean, adjust and squeeze and he’s standing on the seat in front and out the window. FREE! They throw his bag out the window after him and drive off.
The American makes his way up the hill to his home. The drive left him salty and sticky from the sweat, but hell, that’s what you do in this country.